A Day In Battleford In 1885






Veteran Windy Gale sent us the following article which was written by Charles Whitehead (Reg.#1577) Whitehead and appeared in the 5th edition (1923) of the Vancouver Division – RCMP Veterans’ Association’s Scarlet & Gold Magazine.



Retired Sergeant Charles Arthur William Whitehead (Reg.#1577) joined the Force on August 12, 1885 and the events of career in the Force were as follows:

  • 1885 – Basic training at “Depot” Division in Regina;
  • 1885 – 1886 – “F” Division Fort Battleford;
  • 1887 – Helped construct Fort Steele and was a hospital orderly;
  • July 26, 1892 – Charged in Service Court for Neglect Duty by not seeing that Constable Draycott (Reg.#1661) was in his room at the last post. – received a reprimand by Insp. Cutbert; and
Photograph of the NWMP Discharge Certificate for Sergeant

Photograph of the NWMP Discharge Certificate for Sergeant Charles Arthur William Whitehead (Source of image – NWMP Archives held by the Library Archives of Canada).

  • 1896 – Purchased discharge for $50.00.


Photograph of a NWMP trumpeter wearing his trumpeter trade badge (Source of photo - Ric Hall's Photo Collection).

Photograph of a NWMP trumpeter wearing his trumpeter trade badge (Source of photo – Ric Hall’s Photo Collection).

There was no question about it, we had the best trumpeter. “K” division was a “rookie” crowd, but Callaghan could do proud and lofty stunts on the bugle that Grogan of “D” could not even approach, he being a comparatively new hand at the job, only taking it on when Burke was killed at Cut Knife a few months before. Thus it was a beautifully rendered “Reveille” that roused us from our slumbers on the morning of the day I am recording.

The call we used in those days was a particularly pretty little French thing that has since been discarded for the regulation trumpet call of the British army, but its artistic value from a musical point of view was largely discounted by the fact that of its being “Reveille.” “Reveille” means, gentle reader, in this case, turning out of your warm blankets at 6:30 a.m. on to the cold floor of a bell tent with the thermometer below zero, for this is a December day in 1885.

However, we were all younger at that date and anyway our disrobing in those days was not of the complete nature that the ordinary civilian in a warmer clime considers necessary. So on this particular morning when the cheerful call rang out I was not unduly annoyed. One of my comrades while putting on his moccasins and serge and reaching for his cap, which meant in his case, dressing, enlivened the occasion by rendering the words of “They’re Hanging Danny Deever in the Morning” to a tune that I will charitably concede as being of his own composition, as I don’t believe in diabolic intervention. It took me a little longer to complete my toilet as I had to pull on my third pair of socks before pulling on my moccasins and serge.

1906 - RNWMP members stated at Fort Battleford - Saskatchewan (Source of photo - RCMP Veterans' Association - Vancouver Division photo - collection)

1906 – RNWMP members stated at Fort Battleford – Saskatchewan (Source of photo – RCMP Veterans’ Association – Vancouver Division photo – collection)

We fell in for stables and then suffered breakfast and “watering order.” This last thing was a choice morsel. Each man mounted a horse with only a horse blanket, kept in place by the surcingle for a saddle, and you were supposed to lead a loose horse by the halter shank. The watering hole was a mile or so away, the weather cold and the horses fresh and snippy, so if you got back with your lead horse you did what I seldom managed. It was now 9 a.m. and we fell in for the real business of the day. To hang eight Indians.

As this is only a record of one day, I can not go back to the cause that furnished us with our employment, which was the Frog Lake massacre, and is “another story.” We were gathered on this occasion to hang eight Indians who were convicted of having participated in the murders, which, of course, you will remember, were of a particularly revolting nature, involving throwing the bodies in wells, and worse maltreatment. This was a public execution. The scaffold was erected in the open square of the stockade which surrounded the buildings that formed the old fort. A regular prairie fort with corner-bastions and a ditch and old brass guns and everything. The scaffold consisted of a platform about twenty feet high with four heavy posts, one at each corner, and two higher posts in the centre with a cross-beam. This had the effect of giving an uninterrupted view from all sides of everything that went on, both on and under the scaffold. Hundreds of Indians from the many reserves surrounding Battleford were gathered to witness the execution, and I am sure very few of the surrounding settlers failed to be present.

It was a cold day and dull. The crowd was silent and being composed of friends and enemies of the condemned men, naturally constrained. The whites had all lost friends and relatives in the past unpleasantness, and the different tribes of Indians represented had been practically exterminated. So no very cordial feeling could be looked for.

August 1885 - NWMP members at Fort. Battle ford.

August 1885 – NWMP members at Fort. Battleford.

A considerable military force for that time and place was on duty, presumably to prevent trouble. Two full divisions of the N.W. M. P. and “A” battery, in all about 350 men. Sounds small to those used to the large numbers spoken of in the late war, but as I said before this was as different time and place. We were drawn up in the form of a hollow square surrounding the scaffold, and the civilians and Indians were within the stockade, but not allowed to crowd up to the military, but given every opportunity to observe all that happened. Now the scene is set and nothing to do till 10 o’clock.

The Condemned Men

Most of the constables had become acquainted with the condemned men during the weeks preceding this day, as we took turns on guard, so their execution was a matter of personal interest to each of us. We younger fellows were naturally curious to study the behaviour of men facing sure and inevitable death.

Well, these Indians did not seem to take it over seriously; in fact, some of them joked openly with us, and I know for a fact, that a few days before the execution, one of the Indians gave the guard a nice sharp butchers knife that he had managed to have smuggled in, as a proof that it had been in his power to cheat the gallows had he been so inclined. How much of this sang-froid is genuine and how much put on would be a nice question for our wise men, but their attitude made quite an impression on us. So far as I was concerned, they reminded me of the stories I had read of the aristocrats who went to the guillotine in the days of the French revolution, with a contemptuous indifference to their punishment.

Comes 10 o’clock. We had been standing in formation since shortly after 9, when we fell in, and we were cold. A weird chanting is heard in the direction of the guard-room, and those of us who could see in that direction find that the prisoners are coming. The chanting gets louder as one by one they emerge from the guard-house, and their voices combine. Their arms are pinioned, but the shackles they have worn since their arrest have been struck off. Each Indian walks between two husky Constables, small chance of escape. They look cold, they will be colder soon. They mount the scaffold, are placed by the hangman beneath the dangling rope that awaits each. The hangman places the rope about each neck. The chanting of the “death song” still goes on. The priest, who accompanied them is praying, but small attention is accorded him, and the bolt that launches the eight into eternity slips, and the bodies fall the full length of the rope.

How is it, that sounds and smells live in our memory when taste, feeling and sight are forgotten? I can hear that death chant yet, and the drop of the bodies, when I can easily forget what they looked like.

As I was directly in front of the scaffold, and it became the duty of the ten men so stationed to act as burial party, I had an opportunity to see the last of our Indian friends. Rough pine boxes had been made under the sheriff’s orders, in the town of Battleford, a mile or so away. These had been loaded on a wagon for transport to the scene of execution. Unfortunately the horses bolted and upset the load, and two or three of the boxes were badly broken. In repairing them, the dimensions were increased. The bodies were duly placed in the boxes and we escorted them to the trench that had been excavated in the frozen ground with some difficulty. To our dismay, we found they would not fit the grave, and we had no tools or dynamite to blast the hole bigger, so it was necessary to put them in sideways. All this took time, and when we had finished, the short day was over.

EDITOR’s NOTE: The following details supplement Whitehead’s account and were contained in the Saskatchewan Indian magazine – July 1972 and entitled “Battleford Hangings

The eight men who were hung were as follows:

  • Kah – Paypamahchukways (Wandering Spirit) for the murder of T. T. Quinn, Indian Agent.
  • Pah Pah-Me-Kee-Sick (Walking the Sky) for the murder of Pere Fafard, OMT, RC Priest who had fathered the boy as a youth.
  • Manchoose ( Bad Arrow) for the murder of Charles Govin, Quinn’s interpreter.
  • Kit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni (Miserable Man) for the murder of Govin.
  • Nahpase (Iron Body) for the murder of George Dill, Free Trader.
  • A-Pis-Chas-Koos (Little Bear) for the murder of Dill.
  • Itka (Crooked Leg) for the murder of Payne, Farm Instructor of the Stoney Reserve south of Battleford.
  • Waywahnitch (Man Without Blood) for the murder of Tremont, Rancher out of Battleford.

In September and October the accused were tried by C. B. Rouleau, Resident Stipendiary Magistrate of Battleford. The hangings took place November 27, 1885.

The scaffold stood in the barrack square. The platform, 20 feet by 8 feet, 10 feet above the ground with railing enclosing the trap was reached by a stairway. From the beam hung 8 hempen ropes in readiness for the grim task.

It was 8 o’clock in the morning, silence suddenly fell on the whispering groups of civilians. The death chant from the doomed Indians ceased abruptly as a squad of N.W.M.P. rifles at support, marched up to form a cordon about the foot of the scaffold. Then came Sheriff Forget dressed in black, followed by the clergymen. Hodson, the executioner preceded the prisoners. There they came, hands tied behind their backs, with a policeman before, behind, and on either side of each. The only sound was the measured steps of the sombre procession. Sheriff, Clergymen, Interpreter, and hangmen mounted the scaffold. At the foot of the stairs the escort stepped aside and the prisoners ascended to the platform through a gate in the railing. The gate was closed and the prisoners took their places. While Hodson strapped ankles, the doomed were granted 10 minutes in which to speak if they wished, all doing so but Wandering Spirit.

Then all was ready. Black hoods were lowered; ropes adjusted, a deadly silence fell as Hodson stepped behind the line. The grating of iron; 8 bodies shot through the trap; and all was over. Some of the prairie’s greatest braves had passed to the land of their fathers.

Mr. P. G. Laurie as coroner examined the bodies. They were dropped into rough boxes and buried in a grave on the hillside facing the Saskatchewan river not far from the N.W.M.P. barracks.


I wish to say Good-bye to you all,” he began; “officers as well as men. You have been good to me; better than I deserved. What I have done that was bad. My punishment is no worse than I could expect. But let me tell you that I never thought to lift my hand against a white man. Years ago, when we lived on the plains and hunted the buffalo, I was a head warrior of the Crees in battle with the Blackfoot Indians. I liked to fight. I took many scalps. But after you, the redcoats, came and the Treaty was made with the white man, war was no more. I had never fought a white man. But lately, we received bad advice of what good is it to speak of that now? I am sorry when it is too late. In only want to thank you, redcoats, and the sheriff for your kindness. I am not afraid to die. I may not be able in the morning, so now I say again to you all – good-bye! How! Aquisanee!

Photograph of the grave marker of the 8 men hung at Fort Battleford.

Windy Gale closing block